You get what you deserve: Big business and immigration policy

One day in my year 12 Economics class, Mr Darling walked in with a small stack of A4 pages. There was a quote plastered in bold type covering the entire page, “You get what you deserve”, a backpage headline pulled straight from the Herald Sun. Shane Crawford, a high profile Australian Rules Football player for Hawthorn, had just been suspended and he apparently muttered the words to the media on his way out of the Tribunal.

Mr Darling was a decent teacher but motivation was not in his wheelhouse. As he handed each of us a printout, he said we would get the score we deserved at the end of the year. For some unknown reason, I stuck that A4 page on the inside cover of my exercise book and this moment from my otherwise unremarkable year 12 is etched in my memory. Economics turned out to be my best subject but as they say, correlation doesn’t equal causation.

From time to time, I think about “you get what you deserve”. Mr Darling’s words did not resonate with me. As I grow older, I see how manifestly untrue “you get what you deserve” is. Many people in life don’t get what they deserve. Most deserve better. But very occasionally, this saying neatly sums up a complex situation.

I’ve worked in and around migration policy for the best part of eight years and I’m increasingly becoming convinced the big business community in Australia doesn’t have the will or the ability to prosecute a public argument on migration. Almost meekly, they sit by the sidelines and watch as others shape discourse and policy.

They get what they deserve.

Perhaps this is unjust as there are individuals from the big end of town who do their best, both for themselves and their companies as well as the public interest. Yet as a community, big business are failing on migration policy at the very time they need to be leading from the front. Some might disagree but an engaged, outward looking business community is one of the foundations for a successful migration policy framework in the 21st century.

These thoughts were prompted by events last week. The CFMEU ran an extremely effective ad during Masterchef on Sunday night skewering the Chinese-Australia Free Trade Agreement. This was a loud public bang in an until then slow burning campaign that has caught the attention of the broader union movement, the Opposition and crossbenchers, and increasingly, the general public. When ChAFTA was signed, I thought there would be a bit of bluster on the migration provisions. This would blow over and everything would get signed.

I don’t believe this anymore. A clear ‘anti-migration’ perception of the agreement has formed outside of Canberra. The CFMEU and ETU have been on top of their game, creating a campaign that has cut through technical jargon and politics. The ALP has been forced to listen and advocate, a difficult position with Free Trade Agreements as they are nearly impossible to change or retrofit once agreed.

I believe the union campaign is without substance. There are several minor matters in ChAFTA that should be further explained. But I do not think the union campaign is xenophobic or motivated by race. A more likely explanation is one found at the centre of many issue-based campaigns, a combination of self-interest and apprehension of government intentions. Anyone calling the campaign racist has not done the hard yards and sought to explain the agreement to a now-skeptical public. Free trade has been grudgingly accepted by the public for decades and advocates need to continue to demonstrate why these agreements are welfare enhancing.

To recap for those who have wisely avoided reading the technical documents, there are three policy changes central to the union campaign:

  • The removal of advertising jobs to Australians before applying for a 457 visa for Chinese citizens:
    • ChAFTA will remove job advertising for about one percent of the 457 visa program. In general, advertising jobs is not an effective method to get Australians, especially those already unemployment, into the labour market. Employers respond to prices more than regulation. This points to increasing the fees of the 457 visa as a more effective method to provide Australians preferential access in the labour market. In my opinion, this is a small, positive change.
  • The removal of ‘in-person’ skill assessments for Chinese citizens:
    • Under ChAFTA, Chinese citizens are subject to the same provisions as Canadian, British, German and over 90 per cent of all other visa applicants. The removal of in-person skills assessment does not change the fact any Chinese 457 visa holder will still require the relevant occupational licensing and a paper-based skills assessment before they get their visa. Anyone in the world can get a dodgy qualification, you don’t need to be Chinese.
  • The introduction of “Investor Facilitation Agreements”:
    • These agreements are based on current legislation and ministerial powers. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton could sign an IFA tomorrow. They have been rolled up into the ChAFTA as a tactic to push negotiations over the line. In reality, they are completely separate. But the government cannot use this to negotiate with the Chinese government on one hand and then expect the public to ignore it completely. There should definitely be more transparency around the process. A commitment to publicly releasing all agreed IFAs would go a long way to demonstrate how negative effects on Australian workers are illusory.

The union campaign has excelled at highlighting a specific, negative interpretation of these three policy issues. But to my mind, there is a commonsense rebuttal available for each concern.

I’m yet to see such rebuttal from the big business community. Now the best they could manage was tin-eared and late to the party. To date the biggest shot I’ve seen fired is a front page story in the Australian, led by Rio Tinto’s Andrew Harding saying the union campaign “feels xenophobic”. Twiggy Forrest and Kerry Stokes also lent support.

Perhaps broader business support is there behind the scenes. But the time for helpful phone calls ended the day the text of the agreement was published. For weeks now, the policy sales job has been missing in action. Andrew Robb has been left high and dry to do the heavy lifting but with the government already in the doldrums, it was hardly an easy task. The entrance of Harding and Co into the public debate can be best described as reactive. Having let the unions set the boundaries of the debate, there isn’t much ability to pivot back to the presumably positive changes in ChAFTA, such as the removal of quotas and tariff barriers.

There is no reason the business community couldn’t have rolled out a focused campaign to support a bilateral Free Trade Agreement with our single largest trading partner. A handful of industry leaders could have come together and flogged the media high and dry about the benefits of the agreement. An advertising buy, business lunches, a press club speech or two, some market research. Anything. Showcase examples of how the Australian-Chinese business relationships have made Australia richer over the past two decades. Those cheap TVs didn’t make themselves.

Instead, the collective passivity demonstrates the tendency of big business to jump in when it suits, not when there is a fight to be had or gains to be made. This is a dirty little bipartisan secret in Canberra that many in government are unwilling to speak up about. In this example, the cost could be a more fractured relationship with Australia’s most important economic partner.

Big business cannot be relied on to advocate for policy, even one squarely in their interests. When I talk to people about the 457 visa program, they picture a poor bastard on shitty pay getting exploited by their employer. This happens because those who gain the most from the program – Australia’s largest companies – sit back and let the narrative be dictated by others. There are about 35,000 employers using the 457 visa program and if I were a betting man, I’d wager every single member of the Business Council has at least one 457 visa holder on their books, with an average somewhere between 20 to 100 depending on the industry. No-one imagines the computer programmer, the market researcher, the financial analyst, the management consultant, the surgeon, the university researcher or the CEO, let alone state government sponsored nurses and teachers.

Highly paid, highly skilled, filling vacancies, teaching Australian’s and importing innovation with an average salary of over $88,000, well above full time average weekly earnings. This is what the picture of the 457 visa program should be. Yet when the current inquiry being led by the Senate Committee on Education and Employment looks around for evidence of this, they see nothing. For months they have heard stories of worker exploitation and not once have they heard from an ASX200 company about the benefits of temporary and circular migration for business, local economies or Australia as a whole. Perhaps these inquiries are viewed as worthless in Sydney and Melbourne. This is regrettable as they are markers in a debate to capture the public imagination and inform the bias of parliamentarians.

Worse, big business remain silent when news breaks about more short-term self-interest. The hospitality industry has been granted in-principle approval for a lower salary threshold for the 457 visa. The agreement will create the option to negotiate a salary threshold of $48,510. This is 10 per cent lower than the standard program threshold of $53,900. This is despite wage growth in the Accommodation and Food Services sector being below the labour market average from September 2009 (when the 457 visa program was reformed) to March 2015.

I can’t think of a single policy decision that is laced with more risk to the 457 visa program than this. This is the type of decision that gets crushed by history. This will hurt big business as the pendulum will inevitably swing back faster in the opposite direction, probably soaking the program in administration. Why any business or industry leader would let a program as important as this – filling skilled vacancies – be held ransom by a small minority of dodgy operators I do not know.

Unfortunately this goes beyond ChAFTA and salaries for the hospitality sector.

Migration is going to become one of the defining areas of public policy of the 21st century, a battle of increasing security concerns and hyper-nationalism against how liberal we want to call our societies. Business communities will need to be at the forefront of this fight, for their own self-interest above anything else. I have little confidence based on current trends this will occur. Building a narrative where migrants contribute to our national story instead of a story where every new arrival is viewed with suspicion is not going to happen by itself.

Immigration: Nation building or gatekeeping?

The Chifley Research Centre published an article of mine on their ‘New Progressive Thinking’ blog. This is republished below.

“Immigration: Nation building or gatekeeping?”

The role of immigration has been central to building modern Australia. Arthur Calwell was certainly a passionate believer in White Australia yet his vision of mass migration in the aftermath of World War Two laid the foundation for a prosperous future. Similarly, while Gough Whitlam’s foray into asylum policy was regrettable, his introduction of the Race Discrimination Act and the abolition of White Australia ensured future migrants – regardless of where they are from – are fully welcomed to our society.

Together these policy decisions continue to shape current migration programs. Since the end of the recession in the early 1990s, Australia has run relatively large and open migration programs. We don’t talk about it much as attention is drawn to asylum policy but migrants to Australia are a progressive force.

Wage growth for lower skilled workers is stimulated by skilled migration. Australia accepts skilled migrants at some of the highest rates in the world. These skilled workers are complementary to lower skilled workers, creating economic benefits like a wage increase of 4.5 per cent between 1990 and 2000.

Census data for recently arrived permanent migrants show how this occurs. New migrants are over-represented in manager and professional occupations and under-represented as labourers, machinery operators and drivers, and retail and administrative workers. This points to the small but important role migration has to play in tackling inequality within Australia. Those at the bottom are the biggest economic winners from Australia’s skilled migration framework.

Yet Australian policy also addresses between-country inequality, where the bulk of global inequality is generated. The Center for Global Development ranks Australia 5th at promoting development through migration for a large share of students and migrants from developing countries. The Rudd and Gillard governments also piloted and introduced the Seasonal Workers Program, stimulating economic development in the Pacific.

But accepting large numbers of new migrants only works when they are supported. The process of how migrants settle is fundamental to future social cohesion. This includes resources and on the ground support. But perhaps most importantly, political leadership is the vanguard for public sentiment and social cohesion.

And this future, plus our rich history, is being risked in the name of security and border protection. The concept of nation building is receding and being replaced by barriers to fair participation in our society. The language of immigration is changing rapidly.

At the heart of this change in the transformation of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, to include the much heralded Australian Border Force.

Consider the following:

–       From 1 July 2015, immigration officials will be armed. Amongst the first sights a new migrant will witness will be a holstered gun and a set of suspicious eyes.

–       Visa cancellations on ‘character grounds’ have increased 500 per cent in the last 12 months.

–       In the 2015 Budget, an additional $40m was allocated to an ‘anti-people smuggling strategic communications campaign’. This was one of five ‘national security’ expenditure measures in the Budget under the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, totalling $324.9m.

–       At the same time, the government has slashed Australia’s humanitarian program as well as funding for organisations like the International Organisation for Migration who play a critical role in the region helping displaced migrants and asylum seekers.

–       In the 2014 Budget, the government removed the option for new migrants to bring out their parents unless they can stump up over $45,000. This is despite family reunion being a core element of settlement for new communities.

–       A small symbolic shift – email addresses will change from immi.gov.au to border.gov.au – will inform everyone who corresponds with immigration officials about the new priorities.

These are just a few of the changes that highlight the priorities of the Abbott government when it comes to immigration policy. The Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection succinctly summed up this new environment in his Australia Day message to staff:

“More than settlement, we should look to become Australia’s gateway to the world, and the world’s gateway to Australia. On occasions, at times of heightened threat such as caused by terrorism or pandemics, we will need to act as the gatekeepers and as necessary man the ramparts and protect our borders.”

But a gatekeeper in a permanent environment of ‘heightened threat’ will never open their door.

There are options for the future. Just as AusAID has been merged into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, it will be difficult to unwind what has now occurred.

This means new opportunities are required to further improve immigration policy. English language and employment are the two most obvious starting points. Assistance to new communities to learn English is virtually unchanged since the 1990s. Ensuring the hospital, the courtroom and the classroom are places where new migrants feel comfortable is central to our nation in the 21stcentury.

Social cohesion and multiculturalism did not just magically appear. It took leadership, hard work, time and funding to ensure Australia is the one of the most socially cohesive and diverse societies in the world. Maintaining and building on past success must be a priority for progressive Australia.

Musings on Australian migration via Making Australia Great

“Making Australia Great” was excellent for a range of reasons. I want to focus on one.

George Megalogenis’ production had the rare ability to communicate complexity with ease. There have been numerous books, speeches and post-hoc political justifications of GFC in Australia yet this was the most cohesive. More importantly from my perspective, towards the end, he chose to bring a historic tale on Australian migration inside the economic tent. I’m not sure many could have pulled this off but I’m thrilled Megalogenis achieved what he did.

Collectively, we know migration has played a defining role in Australian history yet this has rarely extended to an economic perspective. The cultural and the social dominate Australia’s migration story. The importance of the decision to include migration in an macroeconomic narrative is the timing. Migration in the 21st century is on track to play a more central role in Australia’s economic story than ever before, for better or worse. Yet I worry public and policy understanding of the link between economic and migration policy is poor, making the future more uncertain and liable to populist backlash.

I was struck recently when someone who I think very highly of mused migration in Australia had become normalised.

Living and working in Canberra, I tend to have my head stuck in the sand. Google alerts ping in the morning, legislation whizzes by and a politician says something vacuous about migrants to the media (the far superior number of good words spoken on migration are hidden in Hansard, unreported). The cycle repeats and leaves a focus on all that is bad or requiring fixing. Normalised has not been something I associate with migration in Australia.

Yet the more I think about it, the more I think he is correct. Australia accepts migration. You only need to look at the U.S and the U.K to see two examples of wealthy, democratic societies where this acceptance has frayed and now teeters on a sharp edge.

But what if this acceptance is built on an misunderstanding? Can it come crashing down when the worm turns?

Australia’s migration framework today does not operate how most people think. Perhaps it never has. The image of a ten pound Pom settling in Australia alongside Italians, Greeks and the Vietnamese and becoming “Australians” is rooted in historical fact. But what we don’t think about is the 20-40 per cent of these ‘new Australians’ who would return home. These people lose their voice in our story because they aren’t around anymore. But this critical piece of information reflects how migrants are unnatural. 97 per cent of the global population are not a migrant. Australia is a global outlier of epic proportion when it comes to migration.

The uniting feature of previous migrants was their permanency. If people did return home, that was OK but not expected nor assumed. Today, things could not be more different.

The Australian migrant of the 21st century is temporary. There are about 900,000 long term temporary visa holders who live, study and work in Australia at any one time. There are another ~500,000 New Zealand citizens living in Australia (rather permanently I may add) who are also technically temporary migrants. A total of 1.4 million people living, working and participating. I believe this contrasts starkly with the common imagination of Australian migration: A settler, coming to live in Australia forever. The land of milk and honey.

Understanding this phenomenon is difficult due to the disparate nature of these people. Do not characterise these people in broad strokes as the differences are vast. A 6 month contract working for a global company results in a 457 visa as does someone looking to permanently migrate via a willing employer. A young person escaping economic poverty via a student visa and a life in Australia or the “genuine” student who returns home with a quality education. Revealed preferences only reveal after the fact, something policy makers struggle with.

As a country, the those who remain in Australia should be the focus. These people are temporary in name only. Making up anywhere between 6 to 8 per cent of the workforce, their economic contribution to Australian society far outweighs their cost. This is undisputed, both fiscally and macroeconomic impact. Over different time periods, most of these people will become permanent residents. A minority will remain stuck in limbo.

This is a structural change in Australia’s migration framework that was not present at the time of the last recession. Temporary migration was for all intensive purposes invented in the 1990s after the recession. This brings Megalogenis’ production back to the story.

The underlying point I took away from Megalogenis was the fact 23 years of uninterrupted economic growth did not occur by accident. Hard work happened and a direct consequence was future prosperity. Ken Henry’s point about older people who lost their job in 1991-1992 never working again should be seared into the national consciousness.

Unfortunately, I’m not aware of plans for what happens in the next recession with regard to migration, the labour market and our economy. The 1.4 million people who are temporary residents, without access to the safety net. 1.4 million people – and rising – who will become a central part – perhaps the central part – of how the labour market reacts as macroeconomic conditions deteriorate. How does this population of people gel with a rising number of people looking for work?

The theory of temporary migration hides the ugly truth. The theory goes ‘temporary’ workers, classified by their visa class, leave when the going gets tough. They return home or move onto somewhere else where the situation is relatively better off. History says this is complete garbage. There are many examples of this, best summed up by Max Frisch’s quote, “We asked for workers. We got people instead.”

While an economic slowdown will lead to forces that reduce the trend of new arrivals, the vast majority of people already living here for over a certain period of time are likely not going anywhere.

This stylised fact goes to a central understanding of migration. In technical terms, the “flow” (trend) and the “stock” (population) of migrants, are distinct, separate entities. The problem is they so often get thrown together, blurring our understanding. For example, the 1.4 million number referenced above might move slowly up and down over time periods. But the actual individual migrants that make up that number change more quickly, moving amongst visa categories and in and out of the country.

Predicting what will happen in the next recession is therefore particularly difficult. Assumptions about what decisions people will make are very hard when the terms and conditions governing their livelihood are new.

Perhaps no policy conundrum is more interesting than ‘temporary graduate’ migrants. Driven by policy change in 2011, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection recently mused there may be 200,000 temporary graduates – former international students with an unrestricted two or three year working visa – in the labour market by 2017-2018. These migrants are both temporary in an administrative sense and loaded with human capital. Whereas in the past, migrants were relatively low-skilled, today migrants are relatively high-skilled. They have paid massive sums to attend Australian education institutions and many seek a life in Australia.

Think about this complete change of migration policy in a period of economic recession and a soft labour market. Lower skilled workers get screwed in recessions. This used to mean migrants along with everyone else. But today, instead of ‘temporary’ migrants leaving in droves, it is much more likely lower skilled Australians (and first-generation permanent migrants) will be laid off first while many recent migrants keep their job. At 6.4 per cent unemployment, there is already a small (but loud) group of people and organisations coalescing around an “Aussie’s first” narrative. What happens when unemployment reaches 8 per cent? 10 per cent?

Peter Garrett said “people are not the problem” in Making Australia Great. At the time, I thought it was a bit of a throwaway line. Yet rewatching and thinking about this, Garrett neatly captured a way forward around migration and the economy. If you accept the argument that openness around migration is central to future prosperity, then a response grounded in acknowledging there are serious issues ahead while simultaneously remembering people are not the problem, resonates clearly.

While I believe a level of acceptance on migration does exist, there is little acknowledgment of the seriousness of the issues ahead. The recent Intergenerational Report is a case in point. The net overseas migration figure projected for the next 40 year period is 215,000 in the IGR. This flies in the face of current migration trends and fails to account for how migration has changed. A figure closer to 250,000 might have sparked a more informed discussion of what decisions are required over the medium- and long-term. As George Megalogenis followed up on Twitter, “The point Ken Henry made is the population surge is already upon us. Have to plan now.” This is clearly not occurring.

So what options are there? Regulation comes to mind. Macroeconomic regulation was paramount to past success. The current system of regulation is a work in progress and poorly supported by proper institutional oversight. Binary arguments over 457 visa policy have obscured a more effective focus on improving the status quo (something I have been guilty of). This will require resources for compliance and improving legislative responsiveness. One example is the recent response on 457 visas by Assistant Immigration Minister Cash. An impressive policy package with a clear focus on integrity and weeding out employers who use the program illegally. Despite rooting for the other team, this was clearly a step in the right direction.

A public discussion is also important. The Australian rate of saving went sky high post-2007. I find it hard to think this would have happened to the same extent without a detailed understanding by individual Australian’s about how interest rates and fiscal policy worked. Savers were responding to two decades of being lectured by Keating, Howard and Costello on economic fundamentals. This level of understanding would be impossible to replicate with regard to migration but even a fraction would assist. This is a daunting task for any Immigration Minister yet one so critical to our long-term prosperity and social cohesion.

Even those who do know about migration tend to view it through a prism related to their sphere of influence. Through my job, I try to get out and talk to a range of different people from universities, think tanks, employers, managers and community workers. Most typically have a good understanding of how migration works as it relates to them. Yet it is rare indeed to meet people who understand migration at a macro level and what this means for Australia like you do in other policy areas such as education and increasingly healthcare. Increasing awareness of the migration basics is just as important as advancing innovation in policy.

I understand this minimal level of awareness. Migration is niche, finicky, lacking a strong ideology or grounded in a holistic theory. There is extremely little migration taught at universities and the Minister for Immigration and Department of Immigration are clearly second-tier in terms of prestige both politically and administratively. This is understandable but problematic. Hard work is required and it should start now. Making Australia Great was a firm nod in this direction.

Thank you to the ABC and George Megalogenis. If a tiny proportion of those watching gave even a little thought to the link between the economy, future prosperity and migration, the show was a roaring success for anyone who cares about migration in Australia.

 

A nation beyond? Reframing migration, settlement and engagement

Pessimism is the overwhelming emotion I feel when considering Australian migration in 2015.

Michael Pezzullo, the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, has called for his department to “reframe” how they see themselves. In a speech to staff extracted to the Mandarin, he says:

For us as a department, we should assist in this national endeavour by re-framing how we see our role. Yes settlement will be an ongoing element, but the mission of mass migration that was set for us in 1945 is long accomplished and should be declared so. More than settlement, we should look to become Australia’s gateway to the world, and the world’s gateway to Australia. On occasions, at times of heightened threat such as caused by terrorism or pandemics, we will need to act as the gatekeepers and as necessary man the ramparts and protect our borders. But the overwhelming and predominate role of the department will be to act as the open conduits of Australia’s engagement with the world around us, whether for the purposes of trade, travel, or migration — for time limited purposes or for tomorrow’s settlers. And how different will tomorrow’s settlers find tomorrow’s Australia: a unique society and culture in a unique land, a fusion of the ancient and the modern, proud of the ancient culture of our first peoples, our British legacy and our multicultural unity-in-diversity.

This is a clear break with how the Department of Immigration has seen itself for decades. A disposition of openness has quickly transformed to one of caution.

Mr Pezzullo does not attempt to gloss his message. The “gateway” paints a picture of control, a border that is both high and wide, with but a small window to pass through. The Department of Immigration as a “gatekeeper” neatly describes the new policies that will see some staff carry weapons. Usurping the traditional role of the federal police, gazing toward the United States for inspiration, Mr Pezzullo wants a department with a more overt focus on keeping people out.

“Terrorism and pandemics” should require a calm explanation of the situation, not a trumpet call to ‘man the ramparts’. Australia’s response to Ebola last year was a case in point of how not to make migration policy. Arbitrary bans on the movement of people are nothing more than knee-jerk reactions that inflict damage. A immigration framework tilted in this direction betrays a startlingly negative outlook towards anyone outside Australia.

Mr Pezzullo edges close to implying “we’re full”. Declaring mission accomplished for mass migration in Australia signals a strong message that the Department should shape migration policy based exclusively on the flow of people in and out of Australia instead of also incorporating people who want to live here and those who already do. There is a need for checks and balances in any system yet the emphasis of the border above all else combined with the lack of support for the great migration tradition of settlement is spectacular coming from the person at the very top of the migration bureaucracy. Indeed he seems to completely miss the point about settlement, saying “but we should increasingly reframe our national self-understanding and speak more of engaging with the world, and not just settling our land”.

The concept of settlement has often been poorly understood by the public yet never by a Secretary of the Department of Immigration. Settlement is not about ‘settling our land’ but the process by which new migrants settle within the existing society. This is a process not bound by geography or land but one embedded in the hearts and minds of our community.

Settlement has deep roots in the Department of Immigration. The process of welcome and assistance has been refined over time, successfully reiterated according to the demands of the time. This was relatively easier back in the day as nearly everyone who migrated to Australia did so permanently.

Today things are different. Temporary and circular migration intertwine with settlement. Should the government and department help a new migrant settle if they may head home within five years? When should a non-english speaking migrant be eligible for english lessons if they are on a temporary visa? These questions remain unresolved. Disappointingly, instead of tackling them head on, Mr Pezzullo is more interested in removing them from view. Given he sees the link to the land instead of the people who live on it as the central component of settlement, this is unsurprising. His desire for engagement with the world occurs naturally when new migrants feel they belong in Australia, not to be seen as simply a number alongside import and export quarterly reports.

Shifting the discussion away from settlement is a grave error. While Mr Pezzullo says the age of mass migration is over, I contend he is wrong. Australia remains a destination where people migrate to in large numbers. In fact, the number of new arrivals is trending up. You can see this by looking at the net migration figures.

The past decade is second only to 1945-55 in terms of how many migrants have arrived as a proportion of the population. Perhaps we are entering a new era of mass migration? Perhaps not. But for the bureaucrat charged with oversight of migration in Australia to belay such sentiment is extraordinary and anathema to a 70 year project.

The next Intergenerational Report is due out before the end of February and should project a figure between 220,000 and 240,000 migrants coming to Australia each year for the next 50 years. How these people settle – not how they are screened by gatekeepers – is the most important question for Australian society stemming from our migration policies. For Mr Pezzullo to side-step this in favour of a more muted “travel, travel and migration” agenda is baffling.

Even if Mr Pezzullo wants the age of mass migration consigned to the history books, a migration framework which he oversees is the catalyst for the higher number of new arrivals. Temporary migration has removed much of the control governments once had over the number of migrants arriving in Australia. Decisions once made by bureaucrats in his very position are now made by employers and migrants themselves. Many of these temporary migrants transition and become permanent residents and Australian citizens. Putting the genie back in the bottle would not only be difficult but a disaster on multiple policy fronts.

This means settlement is arguably more important than ever before. In Australia’s first age of mass migration, society was more homogenous. Diversity was in its infancy. English was easier to learn. Communities were stronger. Information spread slowly.

Today Australia is the most successful diverse nation in the world. This did not occur by accident. Settlement is a primary concept of this success, bringing untold political, social, cultural and economic benefits. But the maintenance and improvement of this unique environment requires hard work. People, money, thinking and commitment are all necessary to continue this rather incredible human experiment. This hard work is currently missing and the future will be poorer for it.

Remarkably, the tone of the speech is almost more striking than the theme. Mr Pezzullo appears to come from the in-your-face school of rhetoric. This bravado is best summed up by this passage:

With every passing year, we move further away from the vestiges of these colonial origins that came about as a consequence of the imperatives and decisions of an expanding Empire. But we must never forget that legacy. If you doubt this, ask yourself this question: what did these imperial, red-coated Romans ever do for us? What, other than giving us:

  • Parliamentary democracy;
  • Representative government, commencing with self-government in the 1850s;
  • The rule of the common law, an independent judiciary and the check on executive power;
  • Our public institutions, including the architecture of executive government and its agencies in which we serve today;
  • The separation of the parliament, the courts and the executive government;
  • The freedom of speech, belief, faith and ideas;
  • The English language;
  • The settlement and farming of the land, and the building of our cities; and
  • The foundation of our modes of cultural expression, which have of course evolved distinctly and independently.

Apart from these things, what indeed did the British ever do for us?

Those accustomed to how leaders of public service agencies communicate should be surprised and disappointed.

This borderline rant veers into extremely subjective areas. Mr Pezzullo appears to be egging on his detractors by venturing head first into questions traditional enmeshed in the esoteric world of Australia’s culture wars. One can easily imagine the above passage front and centre of the next Quadrant magazine. This is a poor outcome for a bureaucrat charged with impartially implementing Australia’s migration policy and unimaginable from those who have preceded him.

A final comment. This type of discourse points to the explicit link between asylum policy and migration policy.

In the past, I believed it was possible to clear disaggregate these policies into distinct entities. The Howard government walked that line with remarkable skill.

I’m less sure this is the case today. The direction migration policy is now heading is wrapped up in the words and images of the broader asylum debate unlike before. A hardline approach has begat a small but growing group of acolytes intent on “reframing” migration away from what it means for society and towards what it means for security.

This has incredible ramifications, particularly for political leadership. For progressives, Australia’s successful multicultural society is being shoved to the past and nobody appears to be that interested. For conservatives, this is simply another policy area where the nefarious words of our security discourse are crash tackling the great tradition and status quo of Australian migration and simultaneously reasserting the power of the state at the expense of the individual. I hope we are able to stumble back from the edge we are fast approaching but until those with powerful voices speak up, this will continue to go unnoticed.

The role of Borders: An ominous future

I used to think people who worried about language and rhetoric were focusing on the wrong part of problems. I was wrong. Language acts to emphasise what is important. The ability to shape public opinion by words and context is critical. Nowhere is this more evident than how as a society we talk about immigration. Many examples abound. I want to focus on one and what it portends for the future.

After the ALP lost the 2013 election, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship was renamed the Department of Border Protection. On Thursday, the new Secretary – Mr. Michael Pezzullo – provided the “new” Department with his worldview of how we should imagine immigration in a speech titled, “Sovereignty in an Age of Global Interdependency: the Role of Borders“.

Mr. Pezzullo appears a realist in the most traditional sense. His view of global order is heavily influenced by Henry Kissinger, who he references glowingly early on. Here Mr. Pezzullo hints at what is to come:

“It could be said that the political and economic dimensions of the global order are, however, in tension. As the global order seeks to become more open, with fewer constraints on the flow of people, goods, capital, data and knowledge, the primary building block of the global order – the state – retains its ancient coding as a vehicle for territoriality and exclusion.”

Mr Pezzullo leaves no doubt where he sits in relation to any tension. After outlining one view that borders can be seen as “a cost and time imposition” flowing from the ‘economic logic of globalisation’, his central thesis boils down to the following paragraphs:

“As the Secretary of the department which is charged with protecting our borders, I prefer to see borders in a very different way. I see them as mediating between the imperatives of the global order, with its bias towards the flow of people, goods, capital, data and knowledge, and the inherent territoriality and capacity for exclusion which comes with state sovereignty. Rather  than  anticipating  or,  much  worse,  desiring  the  emergence  of  a  ‘borderless  world’ – a concept which makes no sense in the global order of sovereign states – we should see borders as the connection points of a globally connected world. In other words, global travel and trade, labour mobility, and the migration and movement of peoples are best mediated and managed by connected border systems.

The border is a strategic national asset. Border control points, systems and processes sit astride supply chains and travel pathways. The very design of borders can add to economic competitiveness and productivity, by fostering rapid movement and border entry or exit. Fostering legitimate trade and travel, while remaining vigilant for national security, law enforcement and community protection purposes, and while also using border controls as an extension of economic revenue and industry policy, are not contradictory policy objectives. Today they are intrinsically integrated and connected functions of state.”

I read this as strong borders are good borders. Borders must be protected and controlled given the implications they have for the sovereignty of the nation-state. It is in the emphasis where we see Mr. Pezzullo’s intent. A perfunctory nod to the economics of globalisation and perhaps a different future of how people move globally is followed by an opus on security. By co-opting trade and goods into the same discussion as people, he immediately renders immigration as only a partial component of how to think about the border.

Never before have we seen a speech like this given by the very person charged with bureaucratic oversight of immigration. What are we being protected from? What in our past highlights the need for immediate, visceral redefinition of what a border means in Australia? Call me skeptical but I do not see the justification for this approach. Like smashing an ant with a sledgehammer, we have come to imagine a world filled with drugs, crime and thugs who seek exclusively to harm us. The border envisaged this way can protect us.

Above all else, the overriding focus on control paints an implicit portrait where people are to be kept at bay. Since the post-war period in Australia, immigration has meant many things to many people. But at its core, the message has been one of attraction; an Australia where the new migrant, while perhaps not welcomed per se, is accepted and the act of migration encouraged. Ten pound Poms, assisted migrants and the opening up of our immigration policy to labour demand in the last two decades all scream “Please Come Here”.

Yet here we see a different focus, one where the process of control is placed above all else. In Mr Pezzullo’s world view, I see a reductive logic of this process. There is no space free from oversight or authority of the state. There is secrecy where required, which is often. There must be enforcement and constant success against innumerous enemies. This methodology will inevitably seep into our immigration framework, manifesting itself in regulation and policy that is ever suspicious and errs on the side of restriction, not openness. The themes of this speech are found elsewhere. In the Department’s new “Blueprint for Integration“, a similar definition of the border is promulgated:

The border is not a line on a map. Our focus is on the border in the sense of a complex continuum stretching ahead of and behind the border, including the physical border. It is a space that enables and controls the flow of people and the movement of goods through complex supply chains. We call this the border continuum.

I have thought seriously about the second sentence above and I have yet to understand what exactly it means. But I do know a border is a line on a map and theorising that it isn’t is done to achieve one purpose: to create an environment where security becomes pre-eminent. The ‘border continuum’ exists for this purpose and this alone.

To traditional liberals, to social progressives, to neo-conservatives, this language is anathema to how the world is. To a small subset of people who rely on a beefed up national security framework for political relevance, this is manna from heaven. Yet the most surprising aspect to this language is the silence we hear in response. The concept of immigration as a foundation of modern Australia, a nation-building foundation, is being lost to history and the road ahead is grim. Let me provide the most obvious example.

In the United States there was once an ethos about immigration. A myth of migrants building a new country, combining with a spirit connected to a pioneering past. Some pretend it lingers in the present day but in truth, it has been lost. “Give me your tired, your poor” was replaced with a fence along the Mexico-United States border. A progressive president attempts immigration reform only after having claimed the mantle of deporter-in-chief. The rhetoric and imagery of security when immigration is discussed is inescapable and the idea of America is worse for it. The failure to pass immigration reform or consider the benefits of change is due above all else to how security is the dominant point of discussion when one turns to immigration.

This is the future Mr. Pezzullo wants us to confront in Australia. It is one where the border is in the strictest sense both a symbol and a reality of the state asserting itself over the individual. Will this occur also in Australia? Will the language of borders and security transpose itself from the asylum debate into a migration debate? As a society, despite the ill will towards asylum seekers, in the main we have been able to distinguish between those fleeing persecution and those coming with an official stamp. This is a uniquely Australian ability and it has provided a blanket for multiculturalism and how we think about migration.

But I’m not sure how much longer that can survive if a new culture embedded in the rhetoric of security plants itself in public debate. If the first thing you think about when someone says immigration is the border, the game is already lost. I did not think we are at this point but perhaps I’m wrong and we’re already arrived.

Where are the alternative voices? Where is the business community? Immigration has given so much yet for many in industry, the response is passivity. Gladly accepting the benefits when times are good yet acquiescence when it is most important. A peek to the United States; the reaction of business as a collective was too little, too late. The narrative shifted as they basked in the economic sunshine of the 1990s and it has yet to recover. Where is the political outcry from (small l) liberals? Where is the counter narrative from social progressives? 18c showed the latent capacity that exists within the community for a powerful, positive message to counter a negative trajectory.

Perhaps most tellingly, I do not hear about this story in the media. This speech was not reported by a single outlet (that I can find) and the “blueprint for integration” document came and went with commentary focusing on public servants losing their jobs and without reference to what this means for immigration itself.

Finally, there was another part of Mr. Pezzullo’s speech which gave me pause:

“Tonight I would like to pose some questions about our future, while acknowledging and celebrating the achievements of our past. In 1945, Australia had a population of fewer than 7.5 million. We were predominantly of Anglo-Celtic heritage. In June 2015, just as we prepare to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Department, Australia will have a population of around 24 million – around three times as many as in 1945. More than 7 million people have migrated permanently to Australia since 1945, and almost 5 million have become Australian citizens since the status of ‘Australian Citizenship’ was established in 1949. We are a more diverse society. When we transition from our current state to the new Department next year, and commence on the path of the next phase of our journey, we should take a moment to reflect on what has been achieved since 1945. I contend that we will be able to declare the original mission of 1945 – to build the population base – to have been accomplished.”

“Mission accomplished”. The successful conclusion of a 70 year goal allows a new Department a new focus. Yet where this focus takes us as a country is unknown. It appears the emphasis on nation, on the benefit, on how immigration has given Australia so much will be relegated. Contrast this to the approach of a previous Secretary of the Department. Andrew Metcalfe gave the majority of his career to the bureaucracy of immigration. His speeches were infused with rhetoric also about what immigration meant to Australia but with a very different emphasis:

“Our job as a department is to help build our modern Australian nation – we do that through managing the movement of people in and out of our country, and through the settlement of people here for our inclusive, yet diverse society.”

“Debates about immigration policy are a feature of our Australian history and no doubt will feature predominantly in our future as we continue to define who we are as a nation. However, one thing that is an undeniable fact is that immigration has greatly enriched Australia. The Australia that we love and live in today is a very different place, a far stronger place built through great diversity, than the Australia of 1945 when the department was first established.”

While of course he also spoke of security and compliance, here you can see what an alternative vision looks like. Instead of drawing from Kissinger, Mr. Metcalfe found solace in the words of Teddy Roosevelt (see final paragraph). The difference could not be more stark.

I do not share Mr. Pezzullo’s worldview. I believe it is damaging to how we see Australia as a nation and what immigration means. Reducing immigration to something managed by a border – “not a line on a map” but a giant fence between us and everybody else – renders priority to notions of control, enforcement and security. It ignores the people who make immigration what it is and with it, ignores social, cultural and economic imperatives that make Australia what it is today. This is a pathway towards a dangerous future.

Australian immigration in the 21st century (Part 2)

This is the second in a two part series about Australian immigration in the 21st century. See Part 1 here

Unlike some European and American cities, Australian migrants have not historically lived in tight clusters. It is true many areas are known for their immigrant flavour but intergenerational locational and social mobility has been strong. Indeed, second generation kids do better at school than the average student. This is also reflected in strong English language skills. However there are signs this is slowly changing as diversity increases from recent levels of high immigration.

The Scanlon Foundation ‘Mapping Social Cohesion’ surveys, Australia’s pre-eminent research into immigration and diversity, aims to show emerging social cohesion trends. Over the last seven years, Australian’s have had a high and stable sense of belonging. This means we are proud of the Australian way of life and culture.

Table 4 Scanlon

(Source: Scanlon Foundation Mapping Social Cohesion surveys)

But there has been a sustained negative trend in the sense of rejection.  There is an increasing pessimism about the future and the experience of discrimination is rising. Author Andrew Markus says this is a real challenge for the future but one that is not uniformly bad news:

“If you look at non-English speaking background migrants, the large majority share the Australian dream – work hard and you get on. This makes Australia very different from a number of countries. When you get many people agreeing that you can work hard but you don’t get on, that’s a bad result for a society.”

What is of concern is the increasing attitudinal difference between new migrants and third generation Australians. In 2012, the survey picked up a heightened disenchantment from third generation Australians on whether the impact of immigration was positive or negative. Markus says increasing cultural diversity is partly driving these social trends:

“We are finding increasing segmentation of major cities; the Census provides evidence of a movement away from areas of immigrant concentration by third generation Australians. If you measure diversity by language use, which encapsulates second generation migrants, you find some areas of Sydney and Melbourne which are 90 per cent non-English speaking background. Each Census shows us more of this.”

It is no coincidence that these local areas – such as the outer west in Sydney and south-east in Melbourne – are also areas of high population growth. As Australia’s population has grown, the rate of diversity has increased from 21 per cent in 1996 to 27 per cent in 2011. The majority of new migrants don’t live in the CBD (except for the unique geography of international students) but in the suburbs.

Laurie Ferguson says this change contributes to a ‘nuanced difference’ of social attitudes to immigration between the inner city and the suburbs because “when your space is affected, you have a different attitude to when its not”. Ferguson, a parliamentarian since 1990 for two electorates in suburban Sydney, is most worried about the perceptions around safety and trust. He says he has a number of associates in the ALP who have moved to suburban Sydney from the inner city and now hold dramatically different views on these issues.

“The question of ‘my space’, ‘my neighbour’ doing certain things that give people the shits, is something which contributes. People raise the issue of not being able to buy pork in their butcher shop any more. I hear this pretty regularly. This isn’t a big issue but a small example of space in people’s lives.”

While some might cringe at these comments, sentiment such as this is critical to understand how social change is difficult. These factors play a strong role in how society understands immigration and diversity. Where we live will have a large and permanent impact on how one understands immigration in Australia. In a period of rising diversity and rising population, disparate social and economic groups of people are likely to think very differently about the impacts of immigration.

This understanding is also reinforced by where you work. Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh:

“If you are a worker in an industry which is seeing a big influx of migrants, we should expect you to have a different attitudes to migration than if you’re a worker in an industry that is seeing no influx.”

This is a difficult message to intuit.

There is an ongoing meme that says when different people come together, see and live amongst difference, bias is erased and compassion bred. Unfortunately the evidence for this appears to be mixed at best. Robert Putnam, the leading sociologist on the link between diversity and community, has found “immigration and ethnic diversity challenge social solidarity and inhibit social capital”. If you feel a migrant is replacing your job, how you feel about Australian society and a ‘fair go’ will inevitably change.

This is prevalent in the short term. Helpfully, and more encouraging, new identities for communities are forged over the long-term which encompass immigrants. Australia has ample evidence of this. “It’s not incomprehensible to me that Anglo-Australian’s in the 1950s got nervous when they saw Greeks and Italians”, says Leigh. Sometimes we forget these important historical lessons. Australia has a history of excellent integration over generations.

This explains, but does not excuse, political rhetoric in search of a short-term gain. Why were Prime Minister Gillard’s comments conflating foreigners and unemployment in 2013 so damaging? Instead of seeking to explain the complex, Gillard tapped into the discontent. A Prime Minister’s role should be to rise above it and help shape the long-term success that we know immigration can become. How we ensure this generation of migrants settle well into Australian society – something far from inevitable – is critical.

Unlike some European cities, race riots are a foreign concept in Australia, with Cronulla the major exception. Riots have come to represent to very worst of European society where migrant communities are increasingly geographically, socially and economically separated from their hosts. This is a mark of societies divided by skin colour and religion, occurring in places as unlikely as prosperous, social-democratic Sweden.

In Australia last year, a brief instance of street violence between indigenous and Pacific Islander communities in Logan, south-east Brisbane grabbed the attention of news headlines, only to be forgotten a week later. Perhaps it was the lack of Molotov cocktails or riot police but this small instance of social division points to a more uncertain future as two decades of economic growth slows and encapsulates Markus’ concerns about segmentation.

At the time, Andrew Laming found himself in the middle of this short national discussion after conflating indigenous disadvantage, migrant dependency and welfare in fewer than 140 characters. Twitter is many things, but the appropriate medium to discuss social divisions in suburban Australia it is not.

Away from the immediacy of those events, Laming says this is a serious issue:

“There is concern about islander migration through New Zealand, increasing social problems. In reality this represents a sub-population completely disengaged from society. No mutual obligation, excluded from welfare. This is a real problem and I think it will be looked at by this government.”

Laming’s concerns about the prevalence of Pacific islander’s entering Australia through our open door migration policy with New Zealand are shared by others in Canberra. Since 2001, New Zealand citizens can only become permanent residents and gain eligibility for welfare and social support through the standard visas. This is despite having the right to live and work in Australian permanently on temporary visas. This disconnet from the government safety net is dangerous. Living and working in Australia but technically set apart from everyone else. For some of these people, English may be a distant language and unemployment means a complete lack of basic income, as they are ineligible for NewStart.

Andrew Markus’ latest work shows these concerns are not baseless. In Logan, the Brisbane suburb where the violence occurred, 15 per cent of the population were born in New Zealand or the Pacific. A full 43.7 per cent of the population are born overseas, compared to 27 per cent of Australia as a whole. Social cohesion in Logan is gravely ill. Compared to the national average, every indicator for the Scanlon index is below average. For social justice and equity, there is a massive disparity of 38 percentage points between the national average of 97 and the Logan figure of 59. The sense of rejection is 16 percentage points lower than the national average. People living in Logan feel excluded, rejected and disenchanted compared to people who live elsewhere.

Markus says this is largely responsible for the lack of identification with Australia many New Zealanders have when living in here:

“The New Zealander’s are a huge issue. This is an issue that the government knows is becoming more concerning but who is working seriously on a fix?”

There are only a limited number of ways to improve this situation. The simple, cheap method would see the government limit the arrival of New Zealand citizens or radically alter the existing agreement between Australia and New Zealand on people movement. This would run counter to Australia’s recent history of immigration, an act of exclusion based largely on ethnicity, given the issue has been defined as one concerning Pacific islanders. The precedent would be extreme, unfortunate and retrograde.

Another option is to fundamentally revisit the need to support of those in the community who require it to participate in Australia, both economically and socially. Extending English classes to those who cannot speak English would be a start. Allowing New Zealand citizens to access university funding akin to Australians would be another welcome policy change. These people are Australian in everything but passport. Having lived here for years, the sense of exclusion they demonstrate is perhaps the most worrying ongoing concern for Australia’s sense of social cohesion.

Regardless of the migration and welfare policies, the figures also show the critical role of socio-economic factors play. With an unemployment rate of 13.2 per cent, Logan ranks in the top three percentile of all postcodes for soci0-economic disadvantage in 2011. These are the reasons why 58 per cent of those living in Logan believe immigration is too high, compared to 42 per cent nationally, despite 16.7 per cent of the Logan population arriving between 2000-11. Creating economic opportunity would see social cohesion improve on the back of higher incomes and reduced disadvantage. Feeding the beast with messages about foreigners should be a long way from the politician’s mind.

Fostering a sense of community for those who feel excluded is critical. Of course, this is only one example of a highly frustrated sub-set of people. There are many other, more positive examples of communities. Markus highlights those who most closely identify with Australia are those of Indian ethnicity. Yet by ignoring that which is difficult, we are risking a permanent division between those who have opportunity in Australia and those who do not.

Laming isn’t content simply to comment on the issue of New Zealand citizens however.  He parlays his concerns about social integration into much broader questions about the labour market and labour mobility and what this means in the 21st century:

“There is a real welfare question around mobility of labour. Certainly workers 16 to 21 should be expected to move for suitable work with appropriate relocation assistance and if they refuse two offers, I don’t see why they should continue receiving Newstart.”

He goes so far as to caveat support for further increases in skilled immigration on this type of welfare reform. This would be a radical rethinking of immigration and welfare, policy areas not typically fused together.

On the surface, these policy discussions may appear a long way from arguing about the amount of people who should come to Australia. Yet as the labour market drives immigration, population considerations weave in and out of various domestic policy agendas. Laming’s ideas are well outside the mainstream yet over time these thoughts may come to play a more dominant role.

While I disagree with Laming’s policy solutions, there is an undeniable link between labour mobility and immigration. Jeff Borland, an economist at Melbourne University, has explored the decline of people movement between states. In the decade to 2013, inter-state migration dropped by the equivalent of 130,000 people.

Immigration is one of the reasons for this decrease. Borland finds a closer match between the number of migrants arriving in a state and job creation. This reflects the demand-driven nature of immigration in the 21st century yet few would have expected effects as substantial as reducing inter-state migration.

Labour mobility is critical in a workforce that ebbs and flows amongst its constituent parts. Retail might be slack in Brisbane but booming in Perth. As manufacturing declines, an increasing share of job opportunities might be found in more dense urban areas. Mobility of a workforce allows these opportunities to be explored, softening an otherwise hard landing for those without work.

Unnoticed, away from the front pages, these are the policy impacts stemming from the immigration policy revolution outlined in Part 1. Our space is the common denominator to this social context. Ethnic segmentation, divergent social attitudes and labour mobility are all being directly or indirectly influenced by Australia’s new immigration framework. Yet, on these topics of policy importance, the silence from government, the bureaucracy and those who benefit from immigration is deafening. Just as we are largely unaware about how immigration policy has transformed, we are yet to explore how these policy changes are shaping critical social constructs.

This clash between the economic fundamentals of immigration and the social impact on how people live and work is real. It is also unrelenting. The next question is how to mitigate the worst impacts and harness the most positive aspects of immigration and population. As Australia has shown successfully, and as Europe has failed at historically, the role for government is central in this task.

(See Part One here)

Australian immigration in the 21st century (Part 1)

This is the first in a two part series about Australian immigration in the 21st century

Two symbols of Australian suburban life – the Hills-Hoist and the lawnmower –were broadcast to the world at the Sydney Olympics. Both command attention in backyards across the country, most of which are more than big enough to play cricket in. At the dawn of the 21st century, a bemused global audience caught a glimpse of how we see ourselves. Above all, our space – an entire continent to ourselves – embodied an idyllic Australian lifestyle.

This is the heart of the our population debate. More people means less space. This sentiment fused with electoral politics makes for uncomfortable public policy and strange bedfellows.

The most recent iteration of this potent mix was seen in 2010. A new Prime Minister ran from her predecessor’s policy agenda and a future Prime Minister surveyed the political landscape and made the easy call. Divisive public opinion provided the foundation for ‘a great big new tax’ and ‘stop the boats’. Yet even in this period of heightened political division, bipartisanship in Canberra was far from extinct.

A ‘sustainable Australia’ was born.

Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott campaigned almost in tandem. Abbott called immigration ‘out of control’, Gillard created a Minister for Population and Sustainability and we were promised a Productivity and Sustainability Commission from a Coalition government, which was inevitably scrapped very quietly.

In the four years since, sustainability has been incorporated as a buzzword into the political lexicon, littered within endless talking points and speeches.

This bipartisanship shades the truth. A big Australia is here to stay. Whatever the word sustainable once meant, it must incorporate at least 36 million people by 2050. Sam Dastyari uses his own word to describe the 2010 debate: rhetoric.

“When Gillard redefined the issue from a big Australia to a sustainable Australia, it was actually more rhetoric than policy. It was rhetoric. Rather than embrace it and debate, we’ll redefine it into a less scary concept. There was obviously politics in that. Rhetoric not being matched by policy change was actually disingenuous but everyone is in on it. The Conservatives have got in and nothing at this point indicates anything serious in terms of the broader immigration framework but again, it’s almost as if there is this secret that everyone is in on.”

In his short time in Parliament, Dastyari has become the poster boy for a big Australia.

“It’s become this huge taboo in politics, talking about immigration, talking about population. This is the most significant challenge that is going to be facing us in the next 20-30 years”

This taboo doesn’t apply to Dastyari. A pivotal figure in the much-storied NSW Right faction of the ALP, his position in the Senate allows him a wide berth to explore the controversial. The fact he is Iranian-born is nearly lost in the whirlwind that trails him down the corridors of Parliament House. As his colleagues focus on the deterioration of manufacturing across the eastern seaboard or defend the union movement from another conservative advance, it is easy to dismiss his claims as hyperbolic.

Yet hyperbole it is not. Current rates of net migration are trending above historical levels, something demographic forecasters have had trouble with, making future projections almost impossible. In 2001, the Treasury in the first intergenerational report based its long-term net migration rate at 90,000 per year. A decade later in the third intergenerational report, this number had doubled to 180,000 per year, creating the magic 36m figure where public debate floundered on. As we await the next iteration of the intergenerational report, current net migration trends are hovering at about 240,000 per year. 36m is likely to become 38-40m.

Dastyari is right there is a secret about immigration policy. You’ll find very few politicians who will seriously discuss the issue. Unlike other economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, no politician has been able to explain to a sceptical public how and why a bipartisan consensus exists on the wholesale reform immigration policy has undertaken in the past two decades. This starts with a simple yet somewhat uncomfortable truth: with economic growth, comes immigration growth.

Historically, the federal government picked the number of immigrants to enter Australia every year. This was loosely based on the unemployment rate and strength of the economy. These migrants were provided permanent visas, as the vast majority settled in Australia, a concept in direct contrast to many European countries, where temporary migration was the norm.

Two major policy changes in the 1990s transformed Australia’s immigration framework.

These were the introduction and expansion of temporary visa programs such as 457, student and working holiday visas and the shift away from family reunion towards skilled migration. Bipartisan in nature, there has not been a set of policy changes in the past two decades designed specifically to limit migration in any way whatsoever.

Taken together, these reforms lay the foundation of a ‘demand-driven’ immigration system where demand from the labour market and universities largely determines the number of people who immigrate to Australia. Like interest and exchange rates, immigration has changed from a policy wholly determined by government to one where the market plays the dominant role.

This has not removed government agency from immigration policy. Governments establish boundaries through various program settings but cannot determine the exact number of immigrants who come to Australia each year. Economic growth, such as the much touted 23 years without a recession, will bring more people. This is why the past decade has seen such large increases in population projections.

I ask Bob Carr how he would see a lower rate of population growth. He calls for the government to lower the level of permanent visas in the annual budget process. But he doesn’t touch on the policy settings behind student, 457 or working holiday visas, all of which are increasingly doing the legwork on population growth. These are complex programs now interwoven in our labour market, higher education sector and foreign relationships, arising in the last two decades without the accompanying percolating public discussion akin to how we discuss home loans.

We do not understand immigration as a market driven institution but this is exactly what it is. By constantly relying on politicians to set a limit without acknowledging the policy transformation, we are poorer in our understanding.

Elsewhere in Parliament, particularly with the loss of Bob Carr, you find the very same support for immigration and a larger population. Andrew Laming, a Harvard-educated, beer-swilling, Liberal MP represents the electorate of Bowman, a suburban seat in Brisbane’s east.

“On population growth I regard myself of supporter of what we are currently doing. I’m very comfortable with the current growth and wouldn’t dream of any slower.”

From different sides of the political divide, Dastyari and Laming represent the dominant view in Canberra on population.  This bipartisanship emerged as Australia’s period of economic sunshine began in the 1990s. Dastyari calls this “a secret political consensus” on immigration and population, a journey where the public have been left behind.

Those outside this consensus who advocate for a lower rate of immigration, such as former Premier and Foreign Minister Bob Carr, agree with Dastyari’s central point – how difficult it is to talk about Australia’s population. Says Carr:

“Governments in Canberra have traditionally assumed they can ramp up immigration without any accountability and whenever it surfaces as an issue, I’m struck by the fact that Australian’s have made it pretty clear they don’t accept the simple arguments for a bigger Australia”.

I ask Dastyari if this is simply because no one talks about population or if there is something deeper, a wariness of what this conversation might unearth.

“No-one likes change. People are comfortable and change is an unknown. Historically there has been this sense of the Australian psyche which is wrong, that we are this lucky country with this amazing land of prosperity and peace and someone is going to come and take it away from us.”

Bob Carr on the other hand sees the delineation of federal and state jurisdictions as an important factor. He mentions the oft-cited call by federal governments for an infrastructure response to immigration as not being borne out historically.

“I’ve never seen a federal government – Liberal or Labor – make a serious commitment to the nations cities since the era of Whitlam. No subsequent prime minister has shown any commitment to the quality of urban life”.

These are sharp words for his own side, as the ALP oversaw six years of strong population growth from 2007-2013.

Peter Lewis is a director with Essential Media Communication and has tracked public opinion on population.

“Our leaders don’t want a debate about population, they know they can’t win on a ‘big Australia’. Instead they allow immigration to quietly increase while creating panics around specific groups. The slogan trumps the big issue.”

Lewis’ comments about an inability to win a ‘big Australia’ debate are concerning given Bob Carr is hardly inventing what is a genuine public concern about population.

Following the 2010 election campaign, 47 per cent thought there were too many migrants arriving. This tapered off to 42 per cent last year but remains in the top handful of issues raised by voters after the traditional staples of the economy, health and education.

This entrenched gulf between the public and the political class is dangerous. The result is tokenistic urban planning frameworks across capital cities, devoid of vision and detached from reality.

Exhibit A is Infrastructure Australia’s National Priority List. The largest ‘transforming our cities’ project – the Melbourne Metro – is classified as “only not ready to proceed due to a small number of outstanding issues” despite the fact Premier Napthine has likened the Metro plan for Swanston St akin to the Berlin Wall. There is a lack of transformative infrastructure projects simply awaiting approval.

This even extends to where we live. The Grattan Institute has found Australians have strongly divergent preferences about the housing we live in now as opposed to the housing we want to live in. Something is not quite right.

This is where the politics of population crashes up against a brutal reality about sustainability. Policy and discussion are kept in the backroom instead of the front page. Peter Lewis believes politicians have convinced themselves this debate is ‘unwinnable’ because of a reliance on focus groups.

“It’s not impossible. When people think this is simply a choice between development and no development they opt for the status quo. But when you tell them the population will grow, regardless of who is in power, they accept this and are prepared to engage in a debate about what sort of development we should have.”

We now have a sustainable in name, market driven by nature immigration policy that will push Australia’s population past 36m by 2050.

The 20th century lifestyle celebrated in the Olympics by our love for traditional quarter acre is already in the rear view mirror.

The question is not how many people but what does this mean for Australia? The social and economic impacts on Australia are lost in the debate over the headline figure.

(See Part Two here)